Tuesday Tips: Three Ways To Manage Your Emotions On Game Day

Strategies for keeping your cool in the heat of the game.

CINCINNATI, OH: Iceni (Great Britain Women’s) vs Revolution (Colombia Women’s) – Knockout Stages at the World Ultimate Club Championships. July 18, 2018. Photo: Andrew Moss–UltiPhotos.com

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What has the greatest impact on your performance when you step on the field? Your emotions.

If you want your game to be consistent and at its best, you must be able to recognize how you feel and learn how to deal with your emotions. Here are three ways to help you cope with uncomfortable emotions that arise in crucial moments.

1. Raise Your Tolerance for Frustration and Discomfort

Albert Ellis, an American Psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, identified 12 irrational (or self-defeating) beliefs that underlie most unhelpful emotions and behaviors. These are rules we live by and, even if we are not aware of them, they determine how we react to life.

For example, if you hold Ellis’ second self-defeating belief:

To feel happy and be worthwhile, I must succeed at whatever I do and make no mistakes.

In a game, the moment you drop the disc, it is possible that you conclude that you are not worthwhile.

In life, we are always free to choose from what perspective we want to look at events. However, our perspective is influenced by our beliefs. As an athlete, some ways to look at events and situations can enhance our performance, while other ways can block us from reaching our goals.

Throughout the years, you have learned that positive thinking is important to help you perform in sports. But when you tried, you may have felt that it did not change anything and that you did not feel better.

Positive thinking is useless if you do not first become aware of and transform the irrational into rational beliefs. A belief is irrational when it distorts reality, or when it evaluates you, other people and the world around you in an illogical way. One of Ellis’ irrational beliefs is very common in team sports, and has to do with frustration tolerance level:

Things must be the way I want them to be, otherwise life will be intolerable.

We all have our idea of how things should be. The problem comes from when we think what we want is what must be. That is when frustration arises. Depending on our emotional tolerance level, frustration can have a big impact on our performance.

If you’re consumed with frustration or anger after getting scored on, if you can’t behind staying positive after your team concedes a break—this column is for you.

Low Frustration-Tolerance

Frustration tolerance is the ability to overcome obstacles and withstand stressful events. In sports, low frustration-tolerance occurs when an athlete feels stuck or slowed down in his actions or pursuit of his goal. Since they can’t meet their need or solve a problem or a conflict, they feel frustration and dissatisfaction, and they claim that it should not happen that way.

Low frustration-tolerance is based on beliefs like:

  • My coach should trust me and give me more playing time.
  • It is intolerable to make mistakes, so I must avoid doing so at all costs.
  • My teammates should not lack discipline on the field; it is unacceptable.

When an athlete’s level of tolerance for frustration and discomfort is low, they tend to concentrate on changing the situation to feel better. It makes them focus less on their actions and what is happening right now in the game, leading to a decrease in performance.

High Frustration-Tolerance

When an athlete acts according to high frustration-tolerance beliefs, it means they accept the reality of frustration. Their beliefs are rational, not too exaggerated, and more consistent with reality.

Accepting frustration means that you recognize that no law in the universe says this situation should not happen to you, even if that’s what you want. You expect to experience uncomfortable emotions sometimes, but you do not amplify these emotions by telling yourself that they are unbearable. No one ever wants to get beat to the open side cone; sometimes it just happens. When it does, don’t let the feeling eat you alive for the rest of the weekend.

Develop Emotional Tolerance

Low frustration-tolerance is related to low discomfort-tolerance. Being frustrated and dissatisfied makes you uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable is a source of frustration.

To increase your emotional tolerance level, you must expose yourself to situations that make you feel uncomfortable. That is why it is so important to step outside your comfort zone. By doing so, not only you develop stronger ultimate skills, but you also increase your tolerance to difficult emotions like anger, frustration, embarrassment, or disappointment.

Another way to develop emotional tolerance is to work on deactivating self-defeating beliefs by making a situation rational. See it for what it is and ask yourself if it is that intolerable. For example, here is how we could reframe the previous affirmations:

  • “I don’t like it when I don’t get as much playing time as I expect, but I can stand it. And it doesn’t mean my coach doesn’t trust me.”
  • “I want people to think well of me and they might not when I make a mistake, but I can tolerate it and I know that nobody is perfect.”
  • “I feel frustrated when my teammates lack discipline on the field, but I can survive it and I will play better if I keep my cool over it.”

2. What Stimulates You: Fear or Success?

Another way to master your mental game is to develop a success-driven mindset.

Have you ever noticed that the more you want to succeed, when you almost feel it is a matter of life or death, the harder it gets to reach your goal? And that you often play at your best when you have nothing to lose? When success is too vital for you, it becomes much harder to handle failure. As a result, you may start to try to avoid it at all costs.

On the field, every decision you make and every action you take is either fear-driven or success-driven. Both fear-driven and success-driven actions can produce the same result and lead you to excellence, and we find both types at elite levels of ultimate. However, the fear-driven path may be more painful, since joy is less part of the process.

How do you act at tryouts?

  • You concentrate on your strengths and on playing at your best. (Success-driven)
  • You try to be perfect and spend time thinking about how awful it would be if you don’t make the team. (Fear-driven)

When you cover your player on defense in the end zone, what first motivates you?

  • Playing smart defense, positioning yourself appropriately, and neutralizing your opponent. (Success-driven)
  • Not being the one who will be scored on because it would be very embarrassing. (Fear-driven)

When your goal is to make zero mistakes on the field, what is your motivation deep down?

  • You focus on making the best decision every time you get the disc. (Success-driven)
  • You want to avoid mistakes not to disappoint others. (Fear-driven)

On a universe point:

  • You are the player who is dying to step on the field and take on the challenge. (Success-driven)
  • You are the player who hopes not to be called on the field because you don’t want to make a mistake that could potentially cost the game to your team. (Fear-driven)

What makes you perform: thinking about the reward, or punishment?

Why Being Success-Driven Helps you Reach your Goals Faster

When your desire to win comes from the desire to avoid rejection or embarrassment, the chances are that you will be fearful of losing. Therefore, you may have a hard time focusing on the process, because every time you make a mistake, you may see it as an indicator of a potential decrease in performance.

For example, if you throw a backhand and the result is a turnover, it is possible that you immediately start worrying that there is a problem with your backhand. It is very difficult for you to play relaxed because you feel you have everything to lose. Every failure brings you embarrassment. Losing may also affect your self-confidence very quickly if you link your success to your worth.

When your desire to win comes from the joy and satisfaction you feel when going beyond your limits and reaching excellence, you will tend to focus more on the process and less on the outcome; more on solutions and less on problems. You will improve faster. You know that each obstacle leads to your goal. Losing does not affect your confidence. You know your worth. For you, a loss is an opportunity to grow and become a better player. It will be easier for you to step outside your comfort zone and take more risks.

For example, a defensive player may choose to position himself differently on the mark than what he was being taught to do because he observed the handler and tried to block his favorite throw. They understand that sometimes it will pay off and sometimes it will not, but that is part of the game.

How to Become a Success-Driven Athlete

The first step to developing a success-driven mindset is to identify the source of your fears. There are many sources of fear for athletes; here are three that are common:

  • Fear of embarrassment: “I will be embarrassed if I make a mistake.”
  • Fear of losing a game, or a tournament: “I have to win this game! Losing would be so humiliating.”
  • Fear of not meeting expectations of others: “My coach count on me to lead the team to victory.”

The second step is to rationalize your fears. Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” You may realize that the consequence is not as bad as it seems to be and that you will survive, regardless of the outcome.

The third step is to transform your perspective. Take a step back, look at the bigger picture and identify the lesson you can learn from this experience. Then, rationalize your fear and reformulate it differently. For example: “I have to win this game! Losing would be so humiliating” turns into: “I know if I work my game plan and focus on one play at a time the result will take care of itself.”

3. Use The Slide Effect

A third way to deal with uncomfortable emotions on game day is to create the slide effect. To do so, you must train yourself to visualize with eyes wide open. A slide is a new interpretation that you give to your reality, a different image that you superimpose to what is happening around you.

During a game, when you get triggered emotionally, you could use mental imagery to tell a different story than the one that is happening in front of you. For example, after a throwaway, you could visualize again the same sequence where the throwaway did not happen. If you are good at visualization, this will be convincing and you will start to feel better. Your slide helps you to let go, and stop fighting a situation that cannot be changed by acting as if everything went according to plan. Therefore, it helps you calm down and get back in control. Acting as if is not enough; using a slide is much more powerful.

Be Consistent With Your Mental Training

Coping with emotions is one of the hardest parts of performing. Legendary NCAA coach John Wooden said, “Good judgment, common sense, and reason all fly out the window when emotions kick down your door.” But if you develop high frustration-tolerance, if you don’t let the fear get in your way, if you use imagery and slides to transform your perspective, you will stay in control and perform at your best in the most important moments. Be persistent, be consistent in your mental work and you will get the results you want.

***

Editor’s note: Got a strategy or coaching concept you’ve been aching to write about? Ever wanted to contribute your own Tuesday Tips? Pitch your ideas to simon@ultiworld.com.

Correction: a previous version of this column mislabeled John Wooden. 

  1. Guylaine Girard

    Guylaine Girard is the former head coach of the AUDL's Montreal Royal. She lives in Montreal and has been coaching for 25 years. You can download her free ebook for coaches, check out her blog and follow her on Instagram.

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